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Bald eagle

As tributes poured in upon the July 11 death of Nathaniel Reed, champion of 1973's Endangered Species Act as part of a Republican administration, his legacy was under attack both nationally and in Wisconsin. The ESA is widely credited with saving the bald eagle. 

STEVENS POINT — The July 11 death of Nathaniel Reed served as a reminder of how far the Republican Party nationally and in Wisconsin has strayed from its once substantial conservation roots.

Born to immense wealth and an appointee to Republican administrations in the 1960s and 1970s, Reed was credited with playing a major role in adoption of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. As assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and national parks in the Nixon administration, which created the Environmental Protection Agency, he also worked to ban dangerous pesticides that had decimated wildlife populations. His work in Washington, D.C., continued through the Gerald Ford administration.

In his adopted Florida, he served a Republican governor and battled developers to protect the Everglades and other natural assets like Big Cypress Swamp. He was unabashed in his criticism of those who would profit from destruction of those resources. “I have used that term, avarice and greed, all of my life, because that is really the story of the destruction of Florida,” he said in an oral history.

But as tributes to Reed poured in last week, the ESA was under attack from a hostile Congress that serves a president without an ounce of environmental ethic. This is the legislation that gave us back the bald eagle and other iconic species. It stands as one of the best tools we have to stem, at least in America, what is recognized as a mass extinction of species across the globe.

Reed was not alone among Republicans who forged solid national environmental credentials, and several were Wisconsinites. River Falls native Warren Knowles, who served as Wisconsin governor from 1965-71 and died in 1993, left his own rich conservation legacy, which earned him induction into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame. His name, along with that of Gaylord Nelson, is attached to the state’s major conservation fund, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund. The fund has been attacked and scaled down by Gov. Scott Walker and his anti-environmental pals in the Legislature, whose list of environmental misdeeds is book-length.

A contemporary of Reed and Knowles in the 1960s and ‘70s was Portage native Russell Peterson, who became the Republican governor of Delaware and then served as president of the Nixon and Ford administrations’ Council on Environmental Quality from 1973-76. Peterson earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at UW-Madison and never abandoned his state roots.

As Delaware governor, Peterson led efforts to adopt a Coastal Zone Act that prohibited all new development of heavy industry in a 2-mile-wide, 115-mile-long zone that covered the shores of Delaware Bay, the Atlantic coast, and bays on the leeward side of Delaware’s barrier islands. His foes in included the U.S. Department of Commerce, his state’s Department of Commerce, major oil companies and labor unions. In his 1999 autobiography, “Rebel With a Conscience,” Peterson wrote, “The discovery that all life, air, water and land are interconnected and interdependent constitutes probably the most significant scientific finding of the past century, particularly since it has been coupled with the realization that human interventions in the natural world have long-term consequences.”

At the federal level, Peterson was instrumental in efforts to ban chlorofluorocarbons, coolants that were destroying the ozone layer in the atmosphere. After government service, he went on to head the National Audubon Society to a period of great growth.

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Frustrated by his party’s abandonment of conservation and environmental protection, Peterson changed to a Democrat in 1996. He died in 2011.

Like Reed, Wisconsin’s Peterson saw that greed and avarice had changed the game dramatically. This was unfortunately confirmed in a new report almost before the ink had dried on Reed’s obituary. Fossil fuel producers, airlines and electrical utilities outspent environmental groups and the renewable energy industry 10 to 1 on lobbying related to climate change legislation between 2000 and 2016, according to the analysis. This, at a time when a majority of Americans see climate change as a serious problem. So what? says the author of the study. “Public opinion is pretty much a minor factor in deciding what Congress is going to do,” said Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University.

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.

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